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I love the holidays but I admit I do get anxious about traveling and getting together with extended family.  I mean, why are family vacations so stressful, anyway?  You need to know these science-based secrets to stress-free holiday travel if you want to enjoy your vacation.

Don’t let the stress of travel keep you from enjoying the season.

I admit we have avoided traveling across the country at Thanksgiving and Christmas, just to avoid the stress of holiday travel in airports.

One time we actually dared to venture to the East Coast via Chicago airport during the Thanksgiving holiday.  Just reading that sentence probably makes you cringe if you know about Chicago-Ohare airport and traveling with kids.

We ended up stuck in airports for two days with toddlers while I was six months pregnant. But you know what? I don’t remember it being all that horrible. In fact, I still laugh at that! I know you’re thinking – WHAT you laugh?

Yeah, we’ve had our share of misadventures and being stuck trying to get home. I’ll let you in on the secret to stress-free travel though. It’s about attitude.

You get to choose what the journey that unfolds before you looks like, inside of your own head.

You can have an adult temper tantrum and stomp and pout the whole time when things don’t go according to plan.  Which will stress the kids out and you will find yourself in a full-blown family meltdown. Which just increases the stress of travel.

Or you can get the attitude of a great explorer. You can get into thinking “this is an exciting adventure we are going on as a family”

The fact is, you can let the circumstances destroy your vacation and your kid’s vacation too. Or it can be an exciting adventure. 

When we do get stuck during holiday travel,  I follow these tips to stress-free travel. 

I encourage the kids for being Great Adventurers and talk about our crazy expedition. We have picnics right on the airport floor and sometimes even sleepovers where we watch extra movies.

We find an open area for the kids to run or a quiet area for overstimulated kids to draw and read.

Take these tips into account how to stress-free travel and have a joyful family travel day.


1. Practice the Stress-free Calm Zone


Do you start to worry just anticipating stressful holiday travel?

By practicing staying calm and focused you can change your brain’s response to stress over time. Neuroscientists have found that your brain can learn to be calm under stress.  This is a skill that can be learned and becomes easier with practice.

So before you leave home visualize a calm joyful trip with your family.

Once you’ve practiced this, it will remain easily accessible.  So you will be able to go to your happy place for just a few seconds which can reset your brain.  You can go on vacation from the stress of traveling – right inside your own brain

If you face travel anxiety often, you should read through my tips on overcoming family travel anxiety. 

Following the tips will help you not only lead to stress-free travel during the holidays but will help you to travel more confidently in any season.


2. Be Prepared


The saying goes “hope for the best, prepare for the worst.” 

During your family travel planning process, prepare for delays and things to go wrong. Much of the stress of travel happens due to problems that arise that you were not prepared for. 

Use the ultimate travel planning guide to ensure you don’t miss any steps in planning and have all the logistics organized. 

Travel with extra snacks, clothes, games, and activities. Having these things on hand will make all the difference if you’re stuck in a traffic jam or on the tarmac in a snowstorm.

I keep some extra treats stashed on the side of the cooler or in a separate pocket in my bag.  Then I can pull out the special treats or games to head off a meltdown.

Check the weather forecast beginning a week before your trip.  Make sure to check the weather for your departure, route and arrival. 

You don’t want to be racing over an icy mountain pass in a huge blizzard trying to get the airport.  Yeah – I am a slow learner because it happened to me more than once…OK – maybe more than twice. 

I actually wrote these expert tips for your winter road trip where I included many many lessons I learned from the teacher called life.  Some tips aren’t in any other checklists. 



3. Hope for the Best


Now that we addressed how to prepare for the worst, it is time to address the “hope for the best part.”  

Hoping for the best is the key to stress-free travel preparations and enjoyable travel days. 

When planning and preparing for your trip focus on what you’re looking forward to. Is it the kids’ excitement to fly? Or is it visiting with family you haven’t seen?   Your friends you see once a year?  Or maybe the delicious food?

Whatever it is that you’re excited, about keep your focus there.  Looking forward to fun times together releases happy chemicals in your brain and is good for your mental health even what you think about it.

Therefore, you get twice the benefit of anticipating you’re fun stress-free holiday trip.  You feel happy just looking forward to the vacation and you will be more calm and joyful during the trip.



4. Get Some Gear

  Overstimulation is real and it can take a toll on adults and kids.  Be prepared to create quiet comfortable spaces right where you are. 


Noise canceling headphones and relaxing music will create a quiet space inside your head no matter where you are.  (psst – Charles uses them to mow the lawn).  

We use these volume limited headphones for the kids because they fit perfectly on their little heads and protect their sensitive ears.  

With six of us my house it’s kind of loud sometimes.  My son even wears his headphones at home when he gets overstimulated or needs to get homework done.


Travel blankets are great for comfort, to cover up, or even make a small tent.  We travel with a lightweight sarong the kids got in Costa Rica. I also take a lightweight muslin baby blanket.

Coloring and crafts

Bring along activities and crafts to keep the kids’ focus and their hands busy. Furthermore, the artwork is known to be therapeutic.

Coloring books, crayons, blank paper, and crafts are good ideas.  The big kids love what they call “hard coloring” – the detailed adult coloring books.  I found these cool designs for the boys.  

My kids love the pencils with a wide range of colors and gel pens to add flair to their work.

If you are worried about drawing on the walls or chairs, Colorwonders are perfect.  I take the ColorWonders when we stay in someone else’s house.

Interactive games

Songs, small interactive games or card games are a good way for the family to focus on each other rather than the stress around them.  A few of our favorites are spot it, mad libs, Uno and magnetic tiles.


A word on electronics. Screens can be helpful for travel and a good distraction but beware electronics can cause problems with kids.   

Screentime can be overstimulating to kids.  If this is the case for your family,  as it is for mine, use screens such as tablets, phones, iPads sparingly. 

Strategically pulling out the tablet at the right time or after other options are exhausted can be a lifesaver though. 




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6. Carry-on Light


I know the classic advice is to carry everything on I’m going a different direction with this one.  When traveling with a family the best plan is to carry-on light. 

If you can get everything into a small carry-on for each person and not check bags – great! Do that.  

But sometimes with children and winter gear, that’s just impossible. You end up looking like a walking yard sale.   And you don’t want to be tracking down lots of bags at security or take forever to get bags arranged on a plane.


So go ahead and make life easier and just check some bags.  


Sometimes I need to check a separate bag filled with just winter gear – coats, boots snow pants.   I don’t go crazy but we generally do have a bag of clothes, a bag of gear and a car seat bag.   Still surprisingly little for a family of 6.

If you do check bags, make sure to keep jammies and 1 change of clothes in the carry on bags.  One trip I used new clothes for me and the 2-year-old within minutes of boarding the plane, when he dumped orange juice over both of us!

I do give each person a backpack to carry that has snacks, activities, a change of clothes and jammies. 

I fit it all into the small kids’ bags by packing quick-dry travel clothes and a thin down jacket.  All squished into a plastic Ziploc bag.   

I love these packing cubes – but ziplock bags work best for the kid’s backpacks. 

You can read more about my family packing strategy and the ultimate packing checklist if you need more help packing.  The checklist includes over 200 items that should be in your suitcase.


5. Travel Rested and Nourished


One of my foundational rules of stress-free travel is to keep everyone well rested and as well nourished. 

Try to make sure you and the kids are well rested to start your trip. Then be prepared to rest en route. 

This might mean to drive during naptime or bedtime. Or wear the baby through the airport so she can sleep on you comfortably.

Little ones get overstimulated by crowds easily and enjoy being able to rest in a quiet space.  

When I do travel with a baby I carry them in an Ergo. One of my favorite pieces of travel gear has been an Ergo.  (Yeah, that’s an affiliate link to the same one in the picture. We actually have 2 Ergos, because they work for babies and toddlers)

I don’t look so well rested in the picture below but my baby is doing fine after being airports all day.


In addition to being well-rested, start the day with a good breakfast filled with nutrition.  Skip the donuts and go for eggs, plain yogurt and fruit.  

Pack lots of nutritious snacks.  Good ideas for snacks are veggie sticks, fruit,  cheese sticks, beef jerky, dried fruit, and nuts.  Don’t forget water bottles – empty ones of course, if you are going through airport security.

You can pack lunch and have a picnic on the plane or at a table in a public space.  Make sure to have extra food on hand in case of delays or snowstorms

Arrive Calm

Enjoy the holidays by arriving calm no matter what type of travel day you have. 

You can’t control the weather, or the traffic, or other people who choose to be cranky and stressed during holiday travel.  You can decide to follow the tips to stress-free travel.  

You decide to find joy in the circumstances and use these tips as a secret weapon against stressful holiday travel. 

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